Ragged hole in the WWW

This is no big deal for most people, I assume, but not long ago Yahoo announced it was going to shut down Geocities. As in stop hosting it. As in, everything currently posted there will be going bye bye — “sometime this summer.”

Anybody familiar with Geocities? Anyone?

Well, I am. Back in the late ’90s, Geocities was a place you could go to set up your very own website — for free! Most everything I know about creating websites was learned while futzing around with several personal websites back then. Writing HTML, uploading and downloading images via FTP, and all that good stuff. All the satisfaction of actually creating something original, from scratch, on the Internet, plus all the frustration of trying to do things behind the scenes and discovering how badly a single missing bracket can mess up an entire page.

I set up my last Geocities website in 1996. I haven’t touched it for a good four years or more, and probably no longer have the software or the know-how to do anything with it anyway. It was a creative outlet for me, a virtual playground, laboratory, and scrapbook. Surprisingly, a few of the twenty or so pages have continued to get hits all this time. Amazing. The last stat counter I put on there is now up to 300,000, but that wasn’t until lots of other free stat counters died, including Geocities’ own. So far this year the site has gotten some 20,000 hits which, much as I hate to say it, is way more than this blog gets.

Most of the hits are garnered by just a few of the pages — several on the Oklahoma City bombing, several about Tom Clancy, and one on the Hippocratic Oath. For a while, the page on the Hippocratic Oath was actually being cited on Wikipedia; I was famous! I can’t find the citation now, so maybe somebody finally thought better of it. I ran a Google search on a random phrase off the page and found it quoted and cited all over the place.

geocities2This is just a wee example of the disservice Yahoo is doing the Internet. A wealth of information and even more abandoned junk is going to vanish forever. What about all the references and citations and links to those bits of information? It is the World Wide Web, after all. You start ripping holes in it and you’ll end up with an incalculable number of loose ends and dead links and 404 File Not Found errors where useful information used to reside. Shouldn’t it be unethical or immoral or something to tear holes in the Web?

I’ve wondered in my own antiquated bachelor’s degree way what scholars and academia in general have been thinking about citing Internet pages as legitimate research sources. Yes, the information is out there, and a lot of it is legitimate. But if you cite something from an ephemeral, virtual source like the Internet, there’s no guarantee it will be there when someone goes to check your work, or duplicate your research, or test your thesis. What happens if you base a thesis on a bunch of Internet material and then that material is taken down? There goes your proof, your evidence, your entire foundation.

Nevertheless, I know it’s being done. Style books are showing the accepted style for citing an Internet source. I’ve received correspondence asking permission to cite my material in the author’s work.

Apparently none of that matters. Geocities is going down. There’s something seriously wrong when one organization can decide to just erase a huge piece of the Internet.

At least one gallant individual agrees. Jason Scott and his band of merry geeks, whoever they are, have decided this must not happen and have undertaken to archive all the Geocities material before Yahoo pulls the plug and erases it forever from the virtual world. I haven’t read their entire site yet, but it sounds like they are doing all this on their own time, with their own computers. Amazing. Simply amazing.

What happens to an academic paper if all its cited sources suddenly become just empty 404 codes on the Internet? I don’t know, and obviously Yahoo doesn’t care.

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